Bremer, Fredrika (1801–1865)
Bremer, Fredrika (1801–1865)
Swedish writer, considered founder of the Swedish novel, who also wrote well-received travel books dealing with social and political conditions of other countries, and became an emblem for women's emancipation in Sweden. Born Fredrika Bremer near Aabo, Finland, on August 17, 1801; died on December 31, 1865; daughter of Carl Fredric Bremer (a wealthy iron master and merchant) and Brigitta Charlotta (Holl-strom) Bremer; sister of Charlotte Bremer , who edited her letters and works; never married; no children.
Teckningar utur hvardagslivet (translated as Sketches from Everyday Life, 1828); Familjen H. (trans. The H. Family, 1830–31); Grannarne (trans. The Neighbors, 1837); Hemmet (trans. The Home or Family Cares and Family Joys, 1839); En Dagbok (trans. A Diary, 1843); Syskonlif (Brothers and Sisters, 1849); England in 1851 or Sketches of a Tour in England (1853); Hemmen i den nya verlden (trans. Homes of the New World,1853–54); Hertha (1856); Fader och dotter (Father and Daughter, 1858); Lifvet i gamla verlden (trans. Life in the old World, 1850–62).
Fredrika Bremer's diary entry (July 9, 1823)">
I will remain unmarried, in order not to attach my heart exclusively … but I shall, for the sake of God and of Eternal Love, love all my fellow-men; help and comfort all, as far as lies in my power, which ought to be so much easier when no domestic cares weigh upon my mind. That must be a beautiful and happy life!
—Fredrika Bremer's diary entry (July 9, 1823)
Fredrika Bremer was born in a manor house near Aabo, Finland, where her father Carl, a man of considerable wealth and status, was the ironmaster. At age three, she moved with her parents and her elder sister to Sweden where her father bought a manor house at Aarstad near Stockholm. There, the family spent the clement months of the year, departing for the city with the approach of winter. Fredrika loved the relative freedom of the country where she and her sister were allowed to play outside, though they realized they would never have as much fun as the parson's children who were allowed to roam. Their father, writes Bremer, was "beyond description orderly and punctual" he ruled the household, backed by their mother and her three principles for children's upbringing. They were to grow up in perfect ignorance of everything evil in the world; they were to learn as much as possible; and they were to eat as little as possible. Brigitta Bremer wanted innocent, well-read "ladies," not tall, stout women.
By the time she was five, Fredrika had learned to read both Swedish and French; at seven, she was given music and drawing lessons, and a year later she wrote verses in French. Bremer was an inquisitive child, so eager for information she wore out everyone with her unceasing questions. She further exasperated her teachers and parents by operating on chairs and dolls to examine their contents and by testing the brittleness of porcelain heads against the flagstone hearth. Fredrika was "excessively wild and frolicsome," according to her sister, but she would dissolve in tears when she was chastised, which was often. Bremer would lose her things, tear her dress, or come home late for dinner. Although she had an unusually good memory for her studies, she seemed incapable of heeding daily admonitions, which incurred her parents' displeasure and resulted in scoldings, sometimes for trifling matters. They appear to have embittered her mind somewhat but to have had no impact on her continued pursuit of knowledge.
Between the ages of nine and twelve, Bremer studied English and German and made considerable headway in history and geography. Always in quest of the nature of things, her selective mind reasserted itself in her precise knowledge of the produce of a country rather than its boundaries, which she found difficult to remember. At 16, in preparation for confirmation, she was encouraged to blindly believe what one could not understand. This stance would lead to subsequent religious scruples that she ultimately transformed into a belief in a religious world order according to which each creature in it had a mission to fulfill.
She was further taught to cook and manage a house, and she became a skilled painter of portraits and a capable pianist. In short, Bremer acquired all the attributes considered desirable for a young woman of the upper-middle class who is destined to make a good match. Fredrika, however, chafed at her constricted, secluded existence. Her diary entries from 1822 to 1823 reveal her impatience at her inactive, unproductive life. "How stagnant, like a muddy pool, is time to youth dragging on a dull and inactive life…. I am only twenty-two, and yet I am often tired of the world and wish I were taken from it. But then, we do lead a very dull life." The supposed outcome of this waiting and these accomplishments—marriage—held no attraction for her. "Never marry, Fredrika," she admonished herself. "Be firm; thou wilt bitterly, bitterly repent it if thou allowest the weakness of thy heart to induce thee to such a step. Watch, pray, struggle, and hope." Bremer wanted to commit herself to something worthwhile and considered nursing as a profession. Ultimately, however, she chose writing as a mission worth pursuing and a means to distinguish herself.
Fredrika Bremer's writing began as a way of obtaining funds to help the cottagers on their family estate. She was uncertain of her parents' response to her work; but relying on her worthy purpose, she sent the manuscript of Teckningar utur hvardagslivet (Sketches of Everyday Life) with her brother as he left for the University of Upsala in the fall of 1828. He found a publisher who was willing to publish the book anonymously, and it received favorable acclaim. Encouraged by that reception, she went on to write Familjen H. (The H. Family), a continuation of Sketches, which became a topic of conversation in all circles of society. Thus empowered, Bremer found the courage to reveal the author's identity to her mother. When shortly afterwards the Swedish Academy awarded her its lesser gold medal, the secret of the authorship was publicly revealed. After her father died in 1830, Bremer began to experience more freedom, living for some years in Norway with a friend.
In the following years, she wrote four full-length novels. Critics have argued that although these novels from the 1830s have "some of the lightness of touch, the playful humor and the realistic impressionism of her early sketches," they have an uneven quality about them due primarily to "excessive moralizing or Romantic posing." Even so, they impress by their probing psychological studies of women and their consistent focus on everyday life. Their style is spontaneous and direct and proved to have in it the vitality necessary to direct Swedish prose from the preciosity of the Romantics to the directness of the Realists.
That her works were translated into other languages and widely read is evidenced by the Swedish Academy granting her its large gold medal, which bore the motto "Genius and Taste." In his presentation speech, the president of the academy reminded his listeners of the earlier award given to "a young genius, whose first essays gave signs of a talent of uncommon order, in a branch of literature for which we hitherto [had] been without models." This award, he continued, was not given as an award but as an acknowledgment of a writer who had "raised the fame of Swedish literature in foreign countries."
Because of the estimable translations of Mary Howitt , Fredrika Bremer's fame as an author preceded her when she arrived in America in 1849, following the death of her friend. She traveled as far west as St. Paul, in Minnesota Territory, to the deep South and up the Atlantic Coast to the New England states, intent on studying social and political conditions, especially as they reflected the position of women. Her observations were recorded in a series of letters to her younger sister, which were published in three volumes shortly after her return to Sweden. Hemmen i den nya verlden (Homes of the New World) is true to her childhood's predilection for knowing what a country "produced." Her impressions are recorded from within, depicting her contact with everyday life and people of all kinds and classes. Her reputation had also gained her access to America's most distinguished citizens. She met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson whom she especially admired. She was dismayed, however, by his distancing himself from the problems of life, desiring in him "warmer sympathies, larger interest in social questions that touch upon the well-being of mankind, and more feeling for the suffering and sorrowful on earth."
On the whole, Fredrika Bremer was positively inclined towards the new world though not blind to its shortcomings. She thought the American constitution good but considered too many Americans educationally unequipped to sustain the democratic system it advocated. She approved of the American tendency to organize associations for the purpose of accomplishing certain goals or reforms such as abolition of slavery or women's emancipation. And above all, she liked the evidence of religious freedom stimulating an active spiritual life, which, in her opinion, was the cornerstone of democracy.
Influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville's writings about America, she had arrived with high hopes of finding women's position in society considerably more favorable than in the old country. Her expectations were fulfilled to the extent that she found her American sisters to have better educational and professional possibilities than their European counterparts, but even they suffered the isolation and passiveness with which she was well acquainted. She had hoped to find a land in which liberated women were liberating all mankind for pursuit of moral regeneration, but she had to countenance the fact that she was not in Utopia.
Expectedly, Bremer's instinct for independence would lead her to denounce slavery, as indeed she did, emphasizing the disastrous economic and moral consequences of that institution for the slave holders. Her position on this issue was problematic, however, because she thought the black man mentally inferior to his white master and therefore less able to be a free man and a builder of society. In contrast to the abolitionists who wanted immediate emancipation for blacks, Bremer advocated a more protracted process that would allow for a proper Christian education to prepare them for the status of free citizens. Characteristically, she supported the move to encourage freed slaves to immigrate to Africa where social structures would be more suitable, it was then assumed, for their "simpler needs and instincts."
In the New England states, she found the highest religious and moral ideals and the richest cultural life. In his analysis of Homes, Lars Wendelius points out that Bremer emphasizes two qualities as characteristic of the American people, "on one hand a tendency to further the economic development of the country, on the other hand an equally strong inclination to support its spiritual life." Idealism and common sense, she thought, distinguished the efforts of American society builders, who were individuals as well as social beings working for common purposes. The warm, lively intelligence that informs Bremer's travel books makes them rewarding reading, especially England in 1815 and Life in the Old World. The former concentrates on economic and social concerns whereas the latter focuses on a religious solution to the problems of modern man.
A claim might be made that ultimately Fredrika Bremer contributed more to Swedish culture as a personality than as a writer. As a consequence of her own experience as well as her observations of the world, she made it her aim to labor in the cause of women. On her return from America, she decided to work specifically for the emancipation of Swedish women and their deliverance from the traditional and injurious social restrictions which, in Bremer's opinion, violated their natural rights.
Bremer wanted women to be allowed to study in both elementary schools and universities to become lecturers, professors, judges, physicians, and functionaries in the service of the state. Women, she argued, were owed the same rights to benefit their native country with their talents as men. These views can be found in her most famous novel Hertha (1856), as well as in Fader och dotter (Father and Daughter, 1858).
She took charge of social work as well. When cholera broke out in Stockholm in the summer of 1853, Bremer became the president of a group of women who procured homes for children whose parents had died in the epidemic. Two years later, she placed herself at the head of a small association whose object it was to visit the prisons of the metropolis and the penitentiary for women. In the last years of her life, she devoted her eloquence to calling upon society for money to benefit charitable institutions, such as erection of dwellings for laborers, asylums for aged females, and the so-called Silent School for "deaf-and-dumb" children. Bremer lived to see Sweden pass a law that unmarried women could attain their majority at 25 years of age, and she experienced the introduction in Stockholm of a seminary for the education of female teachers.
In 1856, Bremer set out once again, spending five years on the Continent and in Palestine; her reminiscences were also translated into English. Returning home, she settled at Aarstad, where she lived until her death in December of 1865. In the years following her death, she became the living symbol in Sweden of the struggle for women's rights and for recognition of women's responsibilities. The national women's organization in her country is named the Fredrika Bremer Society.
Bremer, Charlotte, ed. Life, Letters, and Posthumous Works of Fredrika Bremer. Translated by F. Milow. NY: Hurd and Houghton, 1868.
Gustafson, Alrik. A History of Swedish Literature. Minneapolis, MN: The Lund Press, 1961.
Wendelius, Lars. Fredrika Bremers Amerikabild. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1985.
Inga Wiehl , Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima Valley, Washington